Former Vancouver Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis is calling for a forensic investigation into the governance and operations of Field Hockey Canada and how its board of directors has treated the women’s team.
Gillis, who played for the Boston Bruins and Colorado Rockies, has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with the board of directors of FHC over financial accountability and management of the Canadian women’s team. His daughter Kate Wright is the captain.
“There is a mountain of evidence that should have people up in arms in this country. It is our money that’s going to this,” Gillis said in an interview. “They have been [in financial trouble] on at least three separate occasions in the last 10 years, and our funding partner, the people we brought to the table, bailed them out to the tune of $150,000 that was supposed to go to the women’s team. It didn’t go anywhere near the women’s team. It went to pay off a line of credit.”
He applied to the Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada, but the arbitration was dismissed in August – not on the merits of the case but because Gillis had filed it too late.
His allegations of a poorly run organization are partly supported by an independent review that was commissioned by the FHC and obtained by The Globe and Mail. The report concluded in June that “the board of directors have failed to provide the structure and leadership or to own the mandate of the relevant stakeholders of the system as a whole to run HP [the high performance program] which aims for world class.”
In a statement, Field Hockey Canada said: “FHC’s audited Financial Statements, our annual report, governance and other reporting are all a matter of public record. These records demonstrate that FHC is and never has been, bankrupt.”
The report, written by German field hockey coach Markus Weise, criticized the board for the “disconnect, anger and mistrust, lack of vision and purpose” and noted the “uneducated and unqualified coaches.”
Board chair Ann Doggett‚ who has been on the board for a decade, acknowledged in her introduction that the “report is hard-hitting in terms of the deficiencies in our system and highlights the need for urgent and major change in several areas.”
FHC CEO Susan Ahrens said in a statement that the organization has undergone a “complete transformation,” including the hiring of high-performance coaches and staff. She called Gillis’s allegations unfounded.
But Gillis said Weise’s findings support what he has been saying for years about the management of FHC.
He alleges the board has shown favouritism to the men’s team and pointed to an apparent conflict of interest with lawyer Gordon Plottel, who sat on the board while his wife was a paid member of the men’s coaching team.
Gillis complained that a former CEO spent more time working on his PhD than managing FHC and claimed the financial books have not been properly kept.
“Their financial statements are a mess. They have things listed there that are complete misrepresentations,” he said. “They said there was a hosting fund. It was $142,000 that has been listed on their financial statement for years as an asset that is for Olympic hosting, but when confronted they said that was spent years ago.”
Ahrens provided a copy of the latest treasurer’s report, which indicates FHC is trying to resolve issues of financial mismanagement, including cancelling and paying off all credit cards. Budgets must now be based on funds guaranteed by government agencies. No invoices should be paid without the approval of the CEO. And fundraising criteria have been improved.
She said Plottel recently stepped down from the board and insisted he always declared his spouse as a conflict of interest.
“Notably, one third of the board is new to their role while, of the remaining directors, all but two are in their first term,” she said.
What really infuriates Gillis – who in 1997 successfully sued former National Hockey League Players' Association executive director Alan Eagleson for $570,000 for stealing a portion of his disability insurance – is how the women’s team has been treated.
The team hired South African coach Giles Bonnet, who took them from 21st to 14th place in the world. They finished a record fifth at the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 2018 and won a silver at the 2019 Pan American Games.
They later lost to Ireland in a tight shootout and were eliminated from going to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which have been postponed because of the pandemic.
Before the Pan Am Games, FHC dismissed Bonnet, saying it was unable to pay his salary when the team lost its Own the Podium funding for 2019-20.
“So the team raised the money to pay me up to the qualification, not the association,” said Bonnet, who is now coaching in China. “I just think with the women’s team they really had to fend for themselves largely with little direction … there were many occasions where the team felt isolated and alone.”
Gillis said the women’s team got a $2-million pledge over four years from 94 Forward, a Victoria-based organization created as a legacy of the Commonwealth Games in 1994.
94 Forward demanded financial accountability after it provided the $150,000 to the women’s team that went to pay down a line of credit. The board turned down the offer, Gillis said.
John MacMillan, the president of 94 Forward, declined to comment after discussing the issue with his board.